Single source of truth (SSOT) describes a state of being for company knowledge. In this state, all company knowledge is stored and managed centrally. The knowledge is arranged and delineated in a way that avoids all overlaps and duplication.
In this post, we’ll explain what SSOT means, how to “get” an SSOT, what other people mean when they talk about a single source or single-sourcing, and the characteristics of a great system for SSOT.
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It’s Like Zen
A SSOT is not a thing, it’s a state of being.
You can think of a single source of truth as zen.
Zen is an enhanced state of being. It is tough to achieve because it requires a process of practiced focus and effort. However, the process is valuable, even if the practitioner never becomes a guru.
In the same way, a single source of truth requires a process known as normalization. This process is also valuable even if the result isn’t a perfect SSOT environment.
We’ll take a look at normalization and why it’s a valuable effort.
What is Normalization?
Normalization is spring cleaning for company knowledge. It consists of three primary steps:
- Componentize content
- Eliminate redundancy
- Reuse (reference or link) all content instead of copying/pasting
The first step is the one that might sound the most foreign. Componentizing content means that we break down the content into “building blocks” of knowledge.
Typical content management systems allow content creators to write content linearly. Writing in this linear manner means that ideas intertwine and overlap. This blog post is a perfect example. It addresses several topics, but if someone asked about any one of the topics covered, a single paragraph wouldn’t make much sense out of context.
Componentization of content means writing so that the content is independent of the surrounding context. Building blocks don’t depend on surrounding building blocks to “work.” Builders can rearrange and build fluidly.
Content should work like building blocks, and it can work this way if organizations componentize their content.
Componentization is essential in a single source of truth. If you look ahead to steps two and three (eliminate redundancy and reuse content via referencing and links), you can see that if content is not componentized, the other two steps are simply impossible. (Learn more about components and what a component content management system even is.)
Once an organization replaces linear documents with self-contained components of content, eliminating duplicates is possible.
The exact matches are easy to identify and eliminate, but similar components take effort to evaluate. With similar components, it is vital to determine if the differences are necessary. A necessary difference, however small, justifies the additional component.
However, many (if not most) of the differences between similar components are superficial. Often, two writers will communicate the same idea using different words. When the idea and the intent of the components are the same, those components should be consolidated.
Reuse Content (Not Copy and Paste)
After an organization has componentized and consolidated its content, there will be gaps in places where duplicates were eliminated.
That is a good thing.
The third and final step of normalization is to fill those gaps by reusing components.
In the context of a single source of truth, to reuse means to link or reference, not copy and paste.
To copy and paste is to undo all the progress made in step 2 (eliminating redundancy).
The linking strategy is an essential discussion that an organization should have, mapping the linking plan out in a visual way that everyone can see is beneficial. There are many “right ways” to do this, but there are also wrong ways.
A poor linking strategy will collapse under the weight of its interdependence. Content management will become undone, and the organization will be back where it started.
A clear linking strategy is crucial to maintaining a system that avoids duplicate content.
So, we know that a single source of truth is an elevated state of being for your company knowledge and that this state is one that promotes consistency (we’ll return to this), but what if we can’t attain a perfect single source of truth?
Not everyone who meditates achieves zen, and not all who normalize their content achieve a perfect single source of truth.
In practice, a componentized topic written in a technical document should work in any setting, be it a pop-up in a walkthrough app, the FAQ at the bottom of a website, or the response for a customer-facing chatbot.
Unfortunately, we often construct documentation in a way that prevents this seamless reuse. Instead, it requires that we tweak or even re-write for the different output/publishing scenarios.
Is a Single Source of Truth Possible?
A perfect SSOT ecosystem is entirely self-contained, every point of data exists once, and there is a fully developed linking strategy.
Is it possible? Yes.
Is it realistic? Not for most organizations.